Every Computer Dies In The End: Learn What Parts Can Fail, & What To Do About It

featured sick computer   Every Computer Dies In The End: Learn What Parts Can Fail, & What To Do About ItMost computers develop problems over time. Learning what they are and how you can deal with them is important if you don’t want to be paying through the teeth for professional repairs. Don’t worry though – that’s exactly why we’re here. Today I will present you with a list of things most likely to fail in a computer, how you might identify and fix the problem, and anything you can do to prevent it.

Remember - if you have Internet access on another device, our helpful Answers community is on hand and ready to help. Also, before embarking on any kind of hardware repairs, be sure to download our Complete Guide To Your PC, Inside & Out. Part 1 deals with the case, power supply and motherboard, and part 2 addresses CPU, hard disks, memory and everything else.

The Operating System

This isn’t hardware obviously, but it is the single most likely thing to break and therefore worth mentioning – and preparing for. Fixing OS issues is an immense topic though. Malware is the number one cause, so I’d suggest you grab a copy of our free malware removal guide before you really need it.

Incorrect drivers is another common problem that prevents your OS from booting properly, and fixing this involves booting into safe mode and removing the offending drivers.

Pro-tip: Even if something catastrophic and non-recoverable does happen to Windows, you can always re-install. Partitioning your drive to separate data from system files makes the process painless. Once you’re back up to a working state, consider creating a full image of your system drive, so in future you can simply restore that and have a fully working system up again in minutes. Tina showed a few ways of doing a full system image back in 2009 that are still relevant.

Power Supply

Usually the first bit of hardware to go because of cheap electronic components, burnt out or leaking capacitors, or power surges from electrical storms. Diagnosis is simple if you have more than one lying around; just switch them around. Symptoms of a bad power supply are numerous:

  • Failure to power on.
  • Spontaneous rebooting and lock ups.
  • Failure of certain internal components (hard disk or fans not spinning).
  • Overheating due to fan failure.
  • Electric shocks from the case.
  • Smoke.

Assuming no other internal damage has been done, fixing the issue is a simple case of buying a new power supply. There are four screws holding the actual PSU to the case, and numerous power leads leading to the motherboard and every major component. Take the broken one if you need to and ensure it has all the right connections – particularly 20/24 pin motherboard and SATA power for hard disks rather than the older 4 pin style.

power supply   Every Computer Dies In The End: Learn What Parts Can Fail, & What To Do About It

Hard Disk

Hard disks contain many moving parts – platters of metal that spin at thousands of revolutions per second with a precision head that moves over to read their data – so wear and tear is to be expected. Any kind of knock may also cause scratching, leading to an unreadable disk.

Generally speaking, a faulty hard disk will fail within its first three months; once you’re past that, expect a long and healthy life. Hard disk problems can also manifest in a variety of ways, from slow reading of large files to random crashes. With critical hardware failures, you may even hear the hard disk physically grinding itself, or clicking loudly as the read head tries and fails to move into place. Sometimes you’ll have time to pull some of your data off first, often not.

hardrive   Every Computer Dies In The End: Learn What Parts Can Fail, & What To Do About It

Replacing the actual drive is trivial, and a good chance to upgrade to a larger capacity. The problem is the data. In most cases, it’s safe to say it’s completely unrecoverable without costing tens of thousands of dollars for specialist services. We really can’t possibly emphasise more how absolutely critical it is to take regular backups of your data. Read my own account of the triple backup system I’ve got in place for my Mac for ideas.

Fans

Again, moving parts can lead to wear, and fixings may come loose with constant movement. Fan problems can either manifest by overheating – which your computer should automatically shut down to protect itself from – or more usually in the form of a loud whirring (sometimes fixed by giving your case a whack – but don’t do this!)

To fix a faulty fan, open your case up and identify which fan isn’t spinning, or where the noise is coming from precisely. A build-up of dust can also be a cause of blockage, so you really ought to clean the fans off once every six months or so. Remember than a non-spinning fan may also be caused by a faulty power supply, so try changing the PSU first before diagnosing a faulty fan.

If your CPU fan is causing the issues, you’ll need to purchase a replacement CPU cooler, and reseat it with some heat transfer compound; it’s relatively advanced fix and you may need to remove your motherboard entirely to perform it correctly. Case fans depend upon the model in question; some have bespoke plastic clips connecting the fan to the case that are hard to find; if you can find a replacement fan, that is.

Motherboard

Though there’s no moving parts on a motherboard, I’ve come across numerous cases over the years where capacitors are bulging or leaking electrolyte – these are usually due to cheap components. These have affected both Macs and PCs from a variety of brands, and fixing them is certainly not an easy task – it involves desoldering the faulty ones and replacing them with new ones. I’ve had about a 50% success rate with this kind of fix, so if you’re happy with a soldering iron then it may be worth a try. Otherwise, replace the motherboard.

capacitors   Every Computer Dies In The End: Learn What Parts Can Fail, & What To Do About It

Of course, other components can fail too, but it’s quite unlikely. Memory quite often develops errors if it’s been handled or subjected to static electricity, which is why you need to always an anti-static wrist strap when working inside a PC. Unfortunately, memory issues are quite difficult to detect, and can manifest themselves randomly over a period of months.

Do you have any other tips for components that often fail? In your experience, what has failed first? Let us know in the comments!

Image credit: Shutterstock – PowerSupply, Shutterstock – sick computer, Matt Niklas – hard drive

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

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81 Comments -

0 votes

dave

never overlook the possibility of your cmos battery dying -

0 votes

muotechguy

Good point Dave, though in my experience this produces a fairly clear error message as opposed to erratic behaviour.

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

Which after all is ( or at least was ) a pretty easy replacement

0 votes

Rigoberto Garcia

Excellent checklist James. I already had knowledge of the guides MakeUseOf kindly provided us and this article will guide our Service Department in their routine operations. Thanks …

0 votes

Matt Smith

Good tips. Man, that is one ugly motherboard. Even the one I have sitting in my closet doesn’t look that bad.

0 votes

Hoku Sarroca

our oldest computer in our house is about 6-7 yrs old… I clean it out constantly esp when you have pets.. fur’s do fly and a/c vents. At times I will use a tiny soft brush to get the knooks and corners. I’d do this every time I change the a/c filters which is a great reminder .. if you forget. of course I’ve also uploaded the OS.

0 votes

Hoku Sarroca

I’ve also placed a extra fan which you can pick up for dirty cheap. I got mine from the flea market for 5.00 , yes it was brand new.

0 votes

muotechguy

After writing this, I bulk bought 4 air cleaning canisters off Amazon! I was shocked to see how much fluff has collected!!!

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

Interesting tidbit, methinks. I do all IT in our house, and AFAIK, computer cleanliness is next to godlyn ness. My S O’s Kindle 3 was behaving erratically. Wouldn’t hold a charge and everything it did was in extreme slow-mo. Thought it was getting old and ready for a dirt nap.
During my regular Tuesday computer tune up and sock wash. Took some canned air and blasted the Kindle, and swabbed contacts and so forth. Rebooted it and all’s back to normal Kindle-ness. S O thinks I’m a IT god. Life is good.

0 votes

Richard Steven Hack

“Generally speaking, a faulty hard disk will fail within its first three months; once you’re past that, expect a long and healthy life”

A Google study of 100,000 hard drive failures proved the “bathtub model” – as it’s called where the curve spikes early, then falls and spikes again at the end of the drive’s life span – isn’t true. The model is more like a multiple wave, with failure spikes at multiple points along a hard drive’s life span.

It’s also important to realize that newer, larger capacity drives are pushing the engineering envelope and tend to fail much more often than older, smaller capacity drives whose production has been optimized by the manufacturer for reliability. This is why the early Seagate 1.5 and 2TB drives were failing at much higher rates than their 1TB drives a couple years ago (as well as firmware defects.)

The industry claims failure rates at some very small percentage – maybe 1% or less – but the experience of most techs is that failures occur at several times those alleged rates.

I had two drives installed at the time the machine was purchased die within 24 hours of each other some months ago. This was a MAJOR PITA which required me to migrate my data – which was backed up on an external 2TB drive to the remaining 1TB – which entailed some serious pruning of no longer necessary files. I installed a new 1TB drive to handle the excess.

Bottom line: You MUST have your data externally backed up, preferably on more than one device if you’re using external USB drives because they aren’t terribly reliable either and can die on you at any time – possibly just after your main onboard drive has died. Three points of backup are much better than two, and two are infinitely better than one… As they say, “Two is one, one is none.” I’d add, “Three are two…”

0 votes

muotechguy

Always great advice Steven. Consider making an account here, would love to see you collecting points for your valuable comments, which you can use to get awesome free premium software and services.

0 votes

Emmanuel Asuncion

for what i’ve experienced, most of the time its the power supply that i found problematic. my suggestion is before tackling anything on your pc, try checking the power supply first.

0 votes

muotechguy

Funnily enough, the day after writing this, my power supply went caput on my server machine….

0 votes
0 votes

Scutterman

I’ve heard that putting a hard drive in a sandwich bag or similar, and cooling it in a freezer can sometimes buy you a short amount of time after a hard drive fails – maybe long enough to save those last vital pieces of data that didn’t get backed up. I’ve never (yet) had a drive fail on me, so I can’t testify to this personally.

0 votes

muotechguy

Dubious advice, but anything’s worth a try at that point~

0 votes

James Bruce

No doubt. I just like to think logically. WHY would freezing a drive give it life again? I gotta think, maybe its just the act of leaving it alone for a few hours that does it.

Other than that, wouldnt freezing components make them expand? This could go either way if the circuits are cut somewhere – might just make it worse, or might make them connect again?

0 votes

Scutterman

I guess the actual problem with the drive and the time it spends in the freezer would decide whether it’s a benefit or just makes things worse. I would only use it as an absolute last resort, when the only other option it to destroy and recycle the drive.

0 votes

Danny

the heat of over use cause all metal to expand, this is not just in harddrive but in building and other everyday objects too, the only way to subtract is by lowering the temperature, if the there too much expansion then the head between the disc can not move as freely and also run the risk of cutting into the disc surface and at this point data recovery is not possibly. Harddrive also run at the best when cold and there having fun blowing over your drive will certainly help with the speed of your system too

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

Heat causes expansion, Cold causes contraction, except in the case of H2O which expands upon freezing

0 votes

Nofanboy

I’ve used the trick once with success. The drive had the famed click of death (seek error). It is important to remember to (1) let the drive chill in the freezer overnight to make sure the entire internals are cold, (2) let the drive warm up (in the zip lock bag) until it will no longer condense moisture on the outside before extracting it and (3) work fast as the drive warms quickly and you have a limited amount of time before the seek errors start again.

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

Don’t know first hand about freezing HDDs, but wife dropped cell phone in toilette and friend advised her to put it in freezer.
Lo and behold, the drowned cell returned to life.
YMMV

0 votes

Avish Kansakar

is it possible to do one for laptops?

0 votes

muotechguy

Not really – laptops vary so much and the majority have very few user serviceable parts. The list would consist of “power supply – buy a new one”, and thats about it.

0 votes

Avish Kansakar

so if i have owned my laptop for 4 years and its slowing down then i should probably get a new one?

0 votes
0 votes

Tom Sobieski

Or, install a Linux flavor of your choice. Using a 7 Y/O Compaq laptop as I type. Installed Lubuntu and now it has a new lease on life.

0 votes

Shakirah Faleh Lai

I fear malwares more than hardware fail.

0 votes

Laga Mahesa

Keyboard not found
Press F1 to resume

0 votes

AJ

This can be as simple as a bad USB port. If you can, try plugging the keyboard into another USB port on the motherboard. If you have a PS/2 connection for the kb, consider picking up a PS2 -> USB converter. they are probably a dime a dozen at your local compu-warehouse. Or, ditch that relic and get a usb keyboard. if everything else on the computer is working, then its likely just the port.

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

or “any key”

0 votes

Rocking Rameez

thx for the tip

0 votes

Compumind

I still have a nice Gateway XP-SP3 box that has been running without a hitch since 2007, as I replaced the stock PSU with a brand name one and connected the PC to a quality UPS. In addition I clean my computer 2x year with dust-off and use a vacuum for those hard to reach spots. Dust and poor electrical power are two real enemies of computing. Trust me on the UPS. Buy a good one. Cheers!

0 votes

Sloan Thrasher

There was one cause not listed in the Operating System section above:
Upgrading your MS OS.
When I went to Win7, I had to buy new printers because the ones I have that worked just great weren’t supported anymore.
When I upgraded to Win7, I ended up having to buy a new PC because the one I had didn’t have enough ram to run the OS, let alone any applications.
Lastly, there were so many new bugs in the Win7, it took weeks to be able to use some of it, and other parts still do not work well.

0 votes

Nofanboy

Failure of manufacturers to provide new drivers for new OS’s is very annoying. But it varies extremely with manufacturer. I have noted one (unnamed) manufacturer rarely updates drivers beyond the one for the OS current at the date of manufacture. Another — Hewlett-Packard — is famous for providing updated drivers for printer that are obsolescent. They even continue to update drivers for a printer sold when Windows 95 was current and even thought it said right on the box that the driver would not be updated. (The driver was exceedingly complex because the printer had not internal processing power.)

Curiously, HP is also notorious for not providing updated drivers for their scanners.

0 votes

Sloan Thrasher

Interestingly, one of the printers is an HP Laserjet. HP has drivers for the latest MAC OS, but not for Win7. The other two are a Canon all in one, and a Color laser printer (Minolta?). Supplies are still available from the manufacturers, but not drivers. Aaaaarg!

I’ve gotten around the problem in a round about way. I have another machine running Win2k on the same network with a shared folder. I wrote a SLBP (Simple Little Basic Program) that watches that folder for PDF files, and when it sees one, it sends it to the printer. So on my Win7 machine, I print to a PDF and save it in that folder on the other machine. Adds a step or two, but runs like a champ.

0 votes

Tom Sobieski

and obviously you couldn’t find ANYPLACE that sold RAM compatible with the machine. LOL

0 votes

Sloan Thrasher

Nope. The machine was maxed out on RAM….

0 votes

MURALI

RAM, CMOS Battery, DVD drive, Keyboard , Mouse, anything can go off, including your precious LED Monitor!

0 votes

AYAN GANIYU

THANKS FOR THE TIPS BUT I WISH TO ASK THAT HOW CAN ONE RESET A BOARD THAT IS PASSWORD.THIS TIME, IT IS NOT THE BIOS OR HARD-DISK.
IF THE HARD-DISK IS REMOVE THE PASSWORD STILL REMAINS/ THANKS

0 votes
0 votes

Jim Chambers

To test fans including CPU, case aka chassis, video card and PSU, I manually spin fan with the power off. Fan should spin freely. A slow or frozen-up fan generates heat instead of removing it. An overheating video card will also cause system to freeze or reboot

0 votes

AJ

agreed. i would just as soon replace a fan before replacing the PSU as the article recommends; much cheaper :)

0 votes

Oron

Good list James. I’ve got a few points to add:
1. Power supply failures are not always obvious. Often, an old PSU still works, but struggles to produce enough “juice” for peak consumption, with the result of apparently random reboots, or certain components (e.g. DVD drive) failing randomly.
2. Dying batteries can also result is the most bizarre problems. If your computer fails in ways that cannot easily be explained by component failiure, try another battery!
3. On some machines (particularly laptops for some reason), the thermal paste becomes rigid over time and separates from the processor. The result is that the PC heats up quickly (depending on how bad things are, anything from a couple of hours right down to a couple of seconds!) and the machine shuts down.
And finally, my free tip of the day: periodically, take a Hoover (vacuum cleaner) to the OUTSIDE of your PC, and suck the dust out through the vents. Use a fine nozzle for this, and don’t touch the hoover to the case (static electricity). Of course, if you’re a committed DIY’er you can open the PC and clean it internally, but this quick “external suction” is good enough to keep machines working for many years.

0 votes

James Bruce

Gya, lets not talk about laptops. Horrible things.

0 votes

pixelriffic

You’re spot on in pointing out that electrolytic capacitors are one of the most likely to fail of almost any electronic component. In fact, all will eventually fail due to decomposition of the chemical. After years spent as a tech, I have two things to add. One is that you can’t always see visual evidence of failure. Secondly, if you’re going to undertake replacing them, it’s only worthwhile if you replace them all.

0 votes

James Bruce

Good advice. Like I say, I’ve only had about 50% success rate when trying to repair – probably because I missed the ones that didnt look broken. Not worth hassle I’d say, just get a new motherboard.

0 votes

GILBERTO FIGUEROA

Another Item to look at is the modem, Regardless if it is connected or not. I had one that actually developed a hole on a chip, and would not let me boot.

0 votes

James Bruce

… modem?

As in, a dial up modem? You need a new ISP!!

0 votes

GILBERTO FIGUEROA

No. A modem might save you from big bucks. I have an old Emachine, came with modem. Had 3 hurricanes hit Florida about 4 years ago. The modem blew, however was not connected to the phone lines and was not even close to a phone outlet. My ethernet card was ok so was the rest of the unit. Would not load regardles. Started looking around, found this tiny perforation on the modem, took it off, and it is working ever since. BTW, bought a new US Robotics, it is there, never used, never connected.

0 votes

LovesFLSun

Throw out that modem!!

0 votes

Allen M

By memory, you mean RAM, right? It is pretty easy to test for RAM problems. Memtest86 is a free boot disk ram checker (and also available as bundled with Ubuntu distros). Always good to check sticks if upgrading old computers with used ram. Occasionally, old motherboards will cause ram read/ write errors on a ram slot rather than the ram istelf. It’s a good idea to try a stick on multiple motherboard slots if errors are produced. Bad ram can cause random blue screens, system corruption, and really slow down the computer.

0 votes

James Bruce

Good tip!

0 votes

Elijah Swartz

I was basically going to post what Allen said. I decided to do a ctrl+f before posting though. One thing I would mention though is if you get one error, your RAM is bad. If you have multiple sticks, and you get an error, take all but one out and test each individually to find out which (if not all of them) is the culprit. Sort of like Allen also said, make sure you test the different RAM slots with a stick of good RAM to make sure it’s not the slot.

0 votes

John Jullies Palma

A great reminder why we should mind our compy’s health before it’s too late.

0 votes

Michael

Sure, motherboards get iffy then fail when electrolytic capacitors fail , but I have found a much more common reason for PCs that either suddenly or gradually stop working well is also from the motherboard……….there is, on most motherboards, a battery of some sortthat trickle charges when the PC is on and feeds the CMOS bios settings memory so that it does not fail. Eventually (at 3 – 5 years+ this starts showing up) the battery recharges less and less, the CMOS loses settings, and the PC forgets information that is vital to it booting and running correctly. Sometimes just resetting the BIOS settings is enough, sometimes a battery replacement is called for, (a bit of a pain when it is welded on, easier when inserted in clips.) Many PCs have been given up on and scrapped due to this class of problems.

0 votes

James Bruce

I’ve always found the CMOS gives a clear error on boot though, so it’s pretty easy to diagnose and replace the battery.

0 votes

Nguyen Tran

And how about the memory? Why we shouldn’t check RAM modules :D

0 votes

James Bruce

In my experience, RAM doesnt just randomly fail. But you’re right, it can happen. IF you suspect RAM, run MEMCHECK utility on them overnight to stress test.

0 votes

Aditya

Very nice article. In my case the parts that would fail most would be the DVD drive. You use it too much and it fails, you don’t use it much and it still breaks or jams usually in the worst of times. Another would be the USB ports which is failing to connect the USB devices. I suspect this should be mostly PSU problem but I am not sure.

0 votes

James Bruce

I can honestly say I havent touched a DVD drive in … 2 years? ;)

0 votes

Aditya

Me too, until last week when I had to copy photos from an old CD which I still had. I should have known.Lucky a paperclip is nearby :D

0 votes

Olga

I own a very old PC. It runs great despite of its age. The problem is I can’t run Windows 7 on it because there’s no driver for my PC which are compatible with W7 I think… Maybe it’s time to buy another PC.

0 votes
0 votes

LovesFLSun

So pretty much, the case is one of the few items that doesn’t fail? LOL, couldn’t resist!!

0 votes

Terrie

Hi There Dave,

I have a laptop just a year old and the shop I took it to told me it was overheating and the solder was coming away from the parts. When you turn it on and leave it on for about 5-10 mins the screen goes screwy and eventually it is just black.

I want to get it fixed but I know it is probably going to cost me more than the laptop is worth. What do you think????? I hate to get rid of it.

Terrie

0 votes

Elijah Swartz

Well, generally you can just go online and buy some thermal compound such as Arctic Silver 5 or IC Diamond and clean all of the dust off of the fans and heatsinks. I did this to my laptop and it runs quite a bit cooler. However, you said that solder was coming away. If you are comfortable with soldering or know someone who is, go though your laptop and resolder any weak looking connections. Clean it thoroughly, remove the old thermal paste, and put on new thermal paste. There are guides online on soldering and removing and reapplying new thermal paste. It should be rather affordable if you do it yourself. Best of luck.

0 votes

Hasitha Chaturanga

Best article yet

0 votes

Reý Aetar

only the cpu????????????
what about the other parts
my mouse malfunctions almost after every 2 to 3 months the middle button doesnt work and pages scrolls up and down automatically …
Buttons gets doubled clicked although they are clicked ones..
IF YOU WANT A STABLE SYSTEM SPEND SOME EXTRA CASH AND GET A GOOD SYSTEM FROM A REPUTED MANUFACTURER AND IF IT PASSES THE WARRENTY PERIOD WITHOUT ANY PROBLEM THEN I THINK THERE IS HARDLY ANY PROBLEM THROUGHOUT THE LIFESPAN

0 votes

James Bruce

I dont agree. Brand name PCs often use cheap components to save on costs, and sometimes odd custom parts that are difficult to find drivers for.

0 votes

dragonmouth

Agreed. Manufacturers cut costs any place they can by using the cheapest parts available. If they save one or two pennies per box, it amounts to $millions over the entire production run. As far as custom parts go, DELL is notorious for using all kinds custom designed parts, especially power supplies. Guarantees them a lucrative parts replacement business.

0 votes

MerVzter Balacuit

hope there will be article on how to use multimeter in computer troubleshooting, or how to apply it even on laptop , thank you for all of the staff and member of MUO for keeping this site more useful for everyone specially like me who is living in a country which is a little bit behind in technology… keep it up

0 votes

Eric

but a brand name power supply.keep your computer clean.dust can cause overheating and can carry static electricity.put windows in its own partition.

0 votes

Luis

Very good article!
Sometimes the cd/dvd drive is a common cause of troubles, a loosing grip for the sata or power cable could make the computer hang or reboot. And this could happen for the repeatedly act of just opening/closing the dvd tray. In the old days it was not so common because of the sturdier 4pin-molex and ide connectors.

0 votes

sonalkhodiyar

RAM also gets corrupted… IF you computer is not booting and making beeps, you should probably have a look at your RAM, clean it up and place it back, and if still beeps, and everything else is ok, change RAM.

0 votes

vividvilla

SMPS the culprit most of the times

0 votes

Eddie

In the Dell Inspiron Mini 910 the 16GB Solid State Hard Drive failed within 3 months while under warranty. Additionally, 12 months later the replacement SATA drive failed out of warranty and I paid $50 for 16GB Solid State Hard Drive.

0 votes

Charlie Player

my computer iss going 2 die soon :(

0 votes

taxform

I disagree with the latter part of your statement “Remember than [sic] a non-spinning fan may also be caused by a faulty power supply, so try changing the PSU first before diagnosing a faulty fan.”

It’s much easier, quicker and cheaper to plug in a known working fan first than change out the power supply to diagnose a non-spinning fan.

If the “test” fan works, the old fan is faulty and needs to be replaced. It would have been a waste of time, money and effort to needlessly replace the power supply.

Also, power supply testers are now below $20.00 US, are a good investment for anyone tinkering with computers and can be used without having to remove the power supply unit.

0 votes

Brandon Ragoo

I will recommended using UBCD (Ultimate Boot CD) to run diagnostic test to determine on the hard drive or RAM to determine if it is bad. You could use a power supply tester to test a power supply rather than walking with an extra one by a customer and you could even boot from a Linux live CD to backup data before re installing the OS.Since I mentioned Linux i will also like to say one method I use to determine if its a hardware of software issue is to boot from a Linux live CD and see id the hardware component will work.For example if USB port is not working I will boot from the Linux CD and once the USB port works in Linux its an issue with the settings in Windows OS if the port still doesn’t work will its a hardware issue.